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We may divide the word firstborn into two parts, as indeed it is in its very nature already divided: first and born. In so doing we are at once helped to a true understanding of the Greek word of which it is a translation. The word first means "foremost" and is variously used in reference to time, place, order, or importance. This we need to recognize, or we may think of it as referring to time only in these particular passages. But, as a matter of fact, it has a far more spacious value, and in some cases the reference is not to time at all but to that which is beyond time, the timeless and the eternal. The root of the word born literally means "to produce from a seed," but it must be remembered that it always signifies to bear or to bring forth, never to beget. The word has no reference whatsoever to those profounder matters of being associated with the function of begetting. Therefore, it does not necessarily give any revelation of the nature of the one born. It always refers to that hour, or event, or method, by which something already in being is manifested.
The statement that Mary brought forth her firstborn Son does not necessarily mean that no son had been born of Mary before that, although, in all probability, that was true. That, however, is not the significance of the statement. It means, rather, that the Son born of Mary in that hour was the foremost Son, the One taking precedence of all her other sons.
The description, "the firstborn of creation," does not mean that He was the first of the creation in time, that He existed before all other creations. It means rather that He is the ultimate of creation, its goal, its consummation, its final glory. "The firstborn from the dead" does not mean that He was the first raised from the dead in human history. Lazarus had preceded Him, and if we are to trust our Biblical record, others had preceded Him. It means rather that He was the foremost, taking precedence over all others who rise from the dead, and in that sense was the "firstborn of the dead." "The firstborn among many brethren" suggests not merely His priority in point of time, but rather His eternal supremacy over even all those who are brought into new life as the result of His great and gracious mission.
Adapted from The Firstborn, by G. Campbell Morgan.